Monday, June 17, 2013

Vittoria's MUMIA movie hits DVD, and the entire package marks a big improvement

The DVD of MUMIA: Long-Distance Revolutionary is now available from First Run Features, and it contains exactly what I found missing from this repetitive and overlong film: an encapsulation of the putrid prosecution case by the Philadelphia DA’s office against this journalist, showing up the many lies involved, along with intimidated witnesses and the despicable police in charge of the initial investigation, who were already under surveillance because of their suspected corruptions (which is why none of their testimony made the actual trial of Mumia). I believe a much stronger case can be made for the journalist’s innocence than for his guilt.

Why filmmaker Stephen Vittoria did not hack out a full half-hour of his finally too-lengthy and tiresomely pushy film (regarding how wonderful Mumia is, among other repeated points) and insert this 25-minute section – which covers what any newcomers to the case will want to know, while giving those of us already familiar with it a much-needed and helpful memory jog/update – is anybody’s guess. Whatever, you can see this excellent and concise piece of film journalism on the DVD as an “extra,” so you might want to watch it first, before going on to the actual film itself.  Directed, and well, by Mr. Vittoria, this 25-minute short quite literally makes the existence of the two-hour movie worthwhile.

Below is my original review of the film, slightlly edited and updated....

Imagine: A feel-good documentary about a guy on death row who gets his sentence lessened to life in prison! That's Mumia (the man, Mumia Abu-Jamal) and MUMIA: LONG DISTANCE REVOLUTIONARY, the new movie about him by filmmaker Stephen Vittoria. Unfortunately, there's a black hole in this project, the size of which could suck in one of the universes from the recent John Dies at the End. And the oddest thing is, Mr Vittoria has actually planned it that way. The below is from the press kit for the documentary: Unlike any other film about Mumia Abu-­‐Jamal, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary does not deal with Mumia’s case but rather his work as a journalist prior to and after incarceration on Pennsylvania’s death row. “I wasn’t interested in re-­hashing the same polarizing standoff between those who want Mumia to fry and those who want him free,” Vittoria states.

Well, Mr. Vittoria, shown at left, may not be interested in re-hashing Mumia's court case, but his audience most definitely is. (And who says it has to be a rehash? In the current West of Memphis, Amy Berg and her producers brought in new information that made a huge difference to the case itself.) At the very least, the filmmaker could have spent a few minutes on a precis of the case from both sides, even if he favored one of those sides. Instead we get, yes, absolutely nothing about it -- except that Amnesty International found it wanting, justice-wise. Great: Show us why.

The filmmaker's decision not to do this sinks what would otherwise have been a reasonably interesting, if repetitive movie full of glow-ing testimonials by everyone from Alice Walker and Angela Davis to Dick Gregory & Cornell West. Many of these are well-consider-ed and -spoken, but there are simply too many of them. After awhile, the movie, well-intentioned as it might be, begins to seems some sort of like a con job -- particularly given that the single thing we most want to get to the bottom of goes missing entirely.

Mr. Vittoria gives us some interesting history of the city of Philadelphia, in which "brotherly love" seems to not have been able to bridge the divide between races, and his history of Mumia's early life is worth seeing. Ditto his exploration of Mumia's career as a writer and journalist. There is plenty here that makes the movie worth a look, but the hole at its center is so staggeringly blatant and ill-conceived that it makes the documentary's execution a fumble for the record books. What a shame.

This story of a bright, articulate, talented man who may or may not have killed a police officer back in 1981 but is serving a life sentence for the deed deserves better. The one good thing that could come out of this is that the film might well send viewers back to the source material. Reading Mr. Abu-Jamal should be a healthy, salutary thing for many of us.

From First Run Features and sporting a way-too-long 120-minute running time, Mumia is available now on DVD for rental or sale from the usual suspects....

The photos above are all credited within that photo, 
except for the one of Mr. Vittoria, 
which is by Shannon Vittoria.

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